Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended August 4, 2017
This week, I welcome myself back!
I'm happy to be here, really I am. The time away from blogging was great, a much-needed break. What did I do? I went camping (in the rain). I ran a race (the Bix7 in the lovely Quad Cities), and - oh yea - I tried a case in Chicago. Eventful. Not as eventful as Anthony Scaramucci's month, but eventful nonetheless.
Speaking of my trial, it was a doozy. A replevin trial over a stolen shipment of Mexican cheese, which the Chicago Tribune reported on. And, you know your case is good when it merits discussion in Food & Wine magazine. Just so you know, cheese heists appear to be a thing. But I'll take the set of facts I tried over any of these half-baked schemes. And it turned out great a - a replevin judgment about three weeks after we filed the case.
It did get me thinking about remedies, because you know I'm always looking to relate something to non-compete and trade-secrets law. Readers of this blog know that I've written a lot about the ex parte seizure order available under the Defend Trade Secrets Act. That procedure allows for an early court hearing, without notice, through which a federal court can empower a U.S. Marshall to seize stolen items containing protected trade secrets.
This replevin remedy is kind of similar, though there's process afforded. A replevin is simply an interim order that directs the seizure of property. In my case, cheese. But it could in theory be the replevin of a trade secret, too, depending on the facts. In Illinois, at least, replevin is only available for chattels or tangible goods. Again, cheese would be an example. Most trade secrets exist electronically, making the statute in Illinois a somewhat poor fit. Also, most items that a plaintiff would want back are legitimate in and of themselves (a computer, a thumb drive). In a replevin case, the plaintiff must show a superior possessory right to the thing itself - not what may reside on it.
Depending on the facts, a replevin order could issue on an ex parte basis. But in the main, a replevin claim really is an early trial that is akin to a mandatory injunction proceeding, which if successful results in a sheriff seizing property. All that said, don't overlook replevin as a potential remedy in a trade secrets case.
Anyway, on to news and updates.
Consideration for Non-Competes in Illinois
Illinois courts continue to debate and discuss the so-called Fifield rule of continued employment. Generally, that case suggests two years of continued employment is required to serve as adequate consideration for a restrictive covenant. The case, however, is more a result of sloppy legal writing than it is a bold pronouncement of what amounts to lawmaking.
In reality, the facts of Fifield weren't particularly compelling and the case wasn't that close. The employee had been working only for a few months before leaving, meaning his tenure was far short of the rough two-year guidepost old Illinois cases had established. And there certainly was no indication he received anything more than the job itself.
The Appellate Court of Illinois (Second District) weighed in somewhat in Paul Joseph Salon & Spa, Inc. v. Yeske in affirming the grant of a temporary restraining order. There, the defendant resigned two days before the expiration of the two-year employment period. The court held that, at least when reviewing a TRO, the court did not abuse its discretion in finding the consideration adequate even if it fell just short of the two-year mark. The case is not particularly useful since it's an unpublished decision and given the "quick-look" review afforded TROs. And in fact, the Second District in prior cases never has embraced a bright-line rule of two years' continued employment. It appears the reason why is that the two-year rule only sort of exists and stems from an unforced error in the drafting of the Fifield decision.
A link to the case is available here.
From the Southern District of Illinois, we received another district court memorandum order that rejects any bright-line rule concerning continued employment. This follows a trend of cases from Illinois federal courts. In Apex Physical Therapy, LLC v. Ball, No. 17-cv-119, 2017 WL 3130241 (S.D. Ill. Jul. 24, 2017), the court noted the problem with bright-line rules and inequitable results which could occur. Interestingly, the court stated that "consideration can be comprised of benefits beyond continued employment." As with many of the federal decisions, it is not clear what the employee's agreement said about consideration or what else the employer might have alleged in addition to continued employment.
One overlooked aspect of injunction practice in competition cases is the need for a bond. A bond generally provides the defendant some security in case the court was wrong in issuing a preliminary injunction. To be sure, those orders can inflict economic harm on the defendant. And to complicate the equation, courts must issue those orders on a relatively undeveloped record.
In my experience, plaintiffs who seek an injunction treat the bond requirement as an afterthought. It's one thing to ask for a low or nominal bond. It's quite another to be totally unprepared in contacting a broker, filling out a surety application, and getting the bond issued. Assuming a plaintiff does secure a bond, however, it must recognize that it has responsibilities to continue with the litigation responsibly. Or else, the bond may provided the defendant with a ready source of damages.
Against this backdrop, I was interested by the North Carolina Court of Appeals' opinion in Van-Go Transportation, Inc. v. Sampson County. This is not a non-compete case, but it's about the closest analogue and certainly relevant for the bond discussion. It involved a public contract for the transportation of Medicaid patients seeking health-care services. The incumbent, Van-Go, obtained a temporary restraining order against a competing ride company that prevailed in a request-for-proposal process with a municipality. As a condition of the TRO, the court required Van-Go to post a bond.
After the defendant filed a motion to dismiss, Van-Go voluntarily dismissed its case but also sought a release of the TRO bond. The trial court denied that effort and awarded the bond proceeds among the defendants. The Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, holding that a voluntary dismissal is equivalent to an admission that the TRO was wrongfully obtained in the first instance. The ruling is obviously defense-friendly, and it forces the plaintiff to take a long-view of litigation. In rejecting Van-Go's argument that it discontinued the litigation for "responsible financial business practices," it effectively tells plaintiffs that they must continue a case in which they have secured an injunction at pain of forfeiting a bond.
Depending on the amount of the bond (and the damages a defendant can prove), that may be an acceptable risk for the plaintiff to take. But it's crucial to understand that getting an early injunction comes at a price. The plaintiff may not be able to abandon its case free of charge.
A link to Van-Go Transportation can be found here.
The enforcement of non-competes against consultants and independent contractors raises a host of tough questions. After all, the essence of being an independent contractor is freedom and, importantly, freedom to control your own work. Non-competes, by definition, stifle freedom and seem to be at odds with an independent contractor relationship. Still, many companies use non-competes with consultants or sales representatives much as they would with ordinary W-2 employees.
A pair of cases reveals the limitations, though, of shoehorning consultants into the typical employment non-compete framework. The first comes from the Eighth Circuit, where a panel concluded that a company could not restrict an outside sales representative from engaging in competing crop management and fertilizer sales since he had developed his customer contacts through his own labor and without support from the company. The case, Ag Spectrum v. Elder, is a great read on the reasonableness inquiry through its analysis of the company's protectable interest. In particular, the opinion emphasized the resources that the sales representative invested and the absence of any specialized training or assistance that the principal provided. In those circumstances, a customer non-solicitation covenant was unreasonable as applied.
The opinion from the Eighth Circuit panel is available here.
In a similar case, an Ohio federal district court denied an injunction brought by a company that sells, among other things, office chair mats against a former consultant. The non-compete entered into between the company and the consultant broadly prohibited him from competing in the sale of chair mats and other products. The problem for the company is that the consultant's work, following the end of the relationship, involved those other products. And the consultant's services had nothing to do with them. Put another way, the company was trying to prevent competition for work related to products over which its consultant had no involvement.
The opinion, written by Judge Edmund Sargas, reflects a terrific example of judicial engagement - a perspective I often find lacking in non-compete cases. Judge Sargas credited the consultant's prior history in developing the same type of products that he was offering after the end of the relationship, concluding that the consultant in fact did not try to capitalize on anything confidential he learned through his contract arrangement.
Together, both cases demonstrate the difficulty of enforcing non-competes in a more arms-length relationship where the employer simply cannot demonstrate a protectable interest - that is, an interest that stems from a significant investment of time, resources, or information.
Much more next week, including an update on the big Wal-Mart trade secrets case and more non-compete coverage in the New York Times.